Librarian finds digital divide has changed his job
Dennis Carlisle says the digital divide has changed the nature of the job for him and many other librarians at the Seattle Public Library.
Seattle Times staff columnist
Dennis Carlisle wanted to be a fine artist, but he spends much of his time holding people's hands as they navigate the Web.
Years ago he weighed practicality and passion and decided getting a job might be better than starving as an artist.
I suspect flexibility is an underrated virtue, maybe because it can feel less noble than hanging tough. But there are times when adaptability makes more sense.
Carlisle is a librarian at the Rainier Beach branch of the Seattle Public Library, and he wanted to talk with me about the digital divide, which has pushed his job onto a different track.
I'd written recently about libraries adapting to technological change, providing books for e-readers for one thing.
But Carlisle said he's just as much affected by the other end of the tech spectrum.
He got a master's in library science 26 years ago, and colleges shortly after dropped library and started calling it information science.
"The first half of my career, I was deep into reference." Then people stopped calling and stopping by so much. They migrated to Web browsers. Libraries replaced shelves of phone books, atlases and maps with banks of computers.
Another group of people came to the library, people who didn't own computers, or who couldn't afford high-speed Internet access, people who often don't know the first thing about using one of the machines.
Librarians became computer coaches, at least at some branches. Carlisle first encountered that at the High Point branch, and now at Rainier Beach.
"You would think many who need help are in their 60s, 70s or 80s," Carlisle said, "but that's not necessarily the case." He sees mostly people in their 20s to 40s struggling with computers.
They are new immigrants, poor people and people who were born before computers became common in classrooms.
They come in because so much of life has relocated to the Internet, people looking for jobs have to fill out applications online. People come in to apply online for subsidized housing, to take the food handlers test, or to join the social life on Facebook.
They ask, how do I print, how do I get an email account, what is email?
Carlisle said we wrongly assume everyone is marching together into a world of technological wonder, and it just isn't true.
The library lists computer classes online, he said, but the people who need them most aren't online to see the list, so he tells the people he helps about the classes, but that reaches only those who ask for assistance.
Carlisle said he doesn't mind the change in his work: It's still helping people, and he's used to change.
As I said, he started out to be a fine artist but realized he needed to earn some money, so he got a degree in graphic design.
When he graduated from North Carolina Central University in 1982, Carlisle said, "I had my portfolio in one hand and my degree in the other and I was going to get rich as a graphic artist."
He spent the next year unemployed. "That scared me so much, I knew I was going to have to do something else."
He'd worked at a library while in college, so he asked the librarians for advice and went on to get his library degree, and that brought him to Seattle at 25, fresh out of school.
Carlisle had moved around while his father was in the 82nd Airborne, but he considers North Carolina home. Accepting a job in Seattle seemed like a good temporary adventure out West. He'll turn 52 in a few days and he's still here.
"I like what I do," he said. "I'm always going to learn something new today."
Carlisle has embraced the idea that his career and his life will change constantly, and that it's his challenge to adapt.
Life isn't chiseled in stone, not these days.
Jerry Large's column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or email@example.com.
About Jerry Large
I try to write about the intersections of everyday life and big issues. I like to invite readers to think a little differently. The topics I choose represent the things in which I take an interest, and I try to deal with them the way most folks would, sometimes seriously, sometimes with a sense of humor. My column runs Mondays and Thursdays.
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